September 27, 2021 

‘Not ready to go home’: Taurasi returns, Diggins-Smith and Griner dominate

WNBA’s knockout round killers Phoenix Mercury back in semifinals again

At the moment the final rebound was grabbed, Skylar Diggins-Smith quickly raised both arms in triumph and let out a roar.

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She’d come to Phoenix in 2020 with one thing in mind: winning a championship. And, after going through the ringer that her fellow superstars and Olympic gold medalists Brittney Griner and Diana Taurasi had done thrice before, she’s as close as she’s ever been.

The Phoenix Mercury, the WNBA’s knockout round killers, have done it again. It took an extra five minutes, but the Mercury knocked off the Breanna Stewart-less defending champion Seattle Storm 85-80 on Sunday to reach the WNBA semifinals.

It’s the fourth time in the six years of this current playoff format, with single-elimination first and second round games, that the Mercury have won twice to reach the WNBA semifinals, something only achieved by two other teams in that time. It also gives Phoenix nine wins in the single elimination games, triple the amount of the team with the next-most.

A year after losing by one to Minnesota in this second round, Diggins-Smith will finally get her first taste a postseason series in the WNBA, nine years after she initially entered the league.

“For us, last year in a bubble, I was I was disappointed how went down versus Minnesota,” Diggins-Smith said. “And I knew, even coming in here last week when we lost, I was looking forward to the opportunity to come back and have an opportunity in this game. But we made it through a series, we earned a series and that’s really all it is. It’s not like we want a championship or anything, and that’s what we’re after.

“But yeah, obviously, I came here to play with these two superstars and I’m looking forward to the next time we can get on the floor together.”

Phoenix got sensational evenings from their two superstars of the 2021 season: Diggins-Smith and Griner. Diggins-Smith tallied 20 points, seven rebound, six assists, two steals and two blocks, and doing so while sitting for just 91 seconds of game action. Meanwhile, Griner was a force, finishing with 23 points, 16 rebounds (five on the offensive end), four assists and two blocks.

Seattle’s game plan was similar to what they did last Friday and what New York emulated on Thursday, sending double teams at her to try and force her to pass out of it. But by the fourth quarter, Phoenix adjusted and got Griner better looks and she finished them, scoring 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime.

“The fourth quarter, it just started working,” Griner said, “We were just moving and looking for the best shot possible. My teammates, they got me the ball in good positions and I did my work, got down low and we were able to make it work. So honestly, it just opened up —you’ve just got to stay with the game.”

The Mercury also had the return of Diana Taurasi, who had missed the previous five games after injuring her left ankle in the final minute of Sept. 6’s game at Indiana. It was a mystery as to whether Taurasi would play even up to 30 minutes until game time, and the injury clearly left her hobbled. But the 39-year-old gutted out almost 33 minutes and gave Phoenix 14 points, including two 3-pointers in overtime.

“Against New York, I was just not ready to play,” Taurasi said. “The decision was, ‘Can I help?’ and if I can help in any capacity, I was gonna try to play today. We let it just kind of hang out for a couple of days and today, I felt a little bit better. That was my mindset — if I could do anything to help, whatever it was, I was gonna play today. So, you know, it worked out pretty well for us.”

Mercury coach Sandy Brondello added, “Just to have her leadership out there, her passing ability, the calmness, it’s a big thing for us. This is a playoff game, we all want to win. It’s a knockout on someone’s opponent’s court. I think just her being out there makes everyone else calm down a little bit.

“I thought she played well for someone who hasn’t been able to run for three weeks almost, to go out there and play —and really, [she] was so tired but I couldn’t take her out the last 15 minutes — and to come in overtime and make two big plays. I mean, that’s why they talk about [how] she’s the GOAT, because she finds a way. So I’m really really happy for her to get back on the court. She loves this games and she loves being out there with her teammates, and we’re happy that she was out there.”

Where Phoenix really shone in the late portions of the game was on the defensive end, as they’ve done for most of the post-Olympic break portion of the season. After the Storm made 20-of-48 shots in the first three quarters, the Mercury defense held the Storm to 8-of-28 shooting in the fourth quarter and overtime.

On a day where two Phoenix players made WNBA All-Defensive Teams (Griner on Second Team and Brianna Turner on her second-straight First Team), Phoenix showed the team effort needed to defend well.

“We’re gritty, I think we’re tough-minded and we stuck together,” Brondello said. “I was really impressed with our defense. We just locked them down a little bit than we had [been] at the end when it really mattered, even though they made some big shots. Really proud, really proud.”

The Mercury started out the game strong and led by as many as 12 points midway through the second quarter. But Phoenix got ice cold in the latter half of the second quarter and Seattle capitalized, ending the first half on a 15-0 run over the final 5:34, turning that 12-point lead into a three-point deficit at half.

Phoenix responded back in the second half thanks, in part, to their transition game, scoring seven of their season-high 18 fast break points in the third and adding another six points in transition in the fourth. In a second half had a total of seven lead changes and nine different times the game was tied, the Mercury had multiple trips to the free-throw line that could’ve ended the game, the team only made 3-of-7 free throws in the fourth in an uncharacteristically poor 13-for-24 day from the line.

But for as many ways as Phoenix nearly could’ve been beaten on the night, the determination of their superstars led to them clamping down on the defensive end when it counted. And the mindset that it took to make that happen was summarized by Griner.

“Just didn’t want to go home,” Griner said. “Not ready to go home.”

The Mercury aren’t going home. Instead, they’ll be heading to Las Vegas to take on the two-seed Aces on Tuesday night, thanks to the six-seed Chicago Sky knocking off the three-seed Minnesota Lynx 89-76. It’s a bit of a boon for the Mercury, who surely will appreciate staying out West and not having to fly all the way to Connecticut to take on the top-seeded Sun.

Las Vegas will be well-rested, but Phoenix must love the matchup against the Aces, who Phoenix went 1-2 against in three tight games during the regular season. But the Mercury played all three of those games without Taurasi, who may not necessarily be fully healthy but is clearly a difference-maker for this Phoenix team if she is able to play at all.

It’s also a chance for two of the closest opponents by geography in the WNBA’s Western Conference to send a budding rivalry into the stratosphere, especially after hundreds of Aces fans made the four-hour drive (or one-hour flight) down to Phoenix for the final game of the regular season just a week ago.

But that game took place at their usual downtown home, the Footprint Center. After winning on Sunday, the Mercury confirmed that Game 3 of the semifinals will take place at Arizona State’s Desert Financial Arena at noon on Oct. 3, as the Footprint Center is hosting Disney on Ice that day. It’s the second playoff game in a row Phoenix will host away from its usual home, as the first round game against the Liberty was played at Grand Canyon University Arena.

There’s also uncertainly over where the Mercury will play Game 4 on Oct. 6, too. As The Next previously reported on last week, Footprint Center currently is scheduled to host a Phoenix Suns preseason game against the Los Angeles Lakers, and the organization may not officially decide on what to do with the two potential home games that evening until it is known whether or not a Game 4 is needed.

But just having to deal with the logistical nightmares should be a welcome sign to the Phoenix Mercury players, coaches, staffers and fans. It means they’re still playing basketball — and they’ll get a full series now, too.

Written by Alex Simon

SF Bay Area native, 2x grad (Elon, ASU), adjunct professor at ASU's Cronkite School, editor & journalist always looking to tell unique stories.

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